Post-Landscape: Between Nature and Culture
Between Nature and Culture
…We forget that battlefields are one kind of landscape and that most landscapes are also territories…on the small scale they involve real estate and sense of place, on the large scale they involve nationalisms, war, and the grounds for ethnic identity…(the landscape is) not just where we picnic but also where we live and die. It is where our food, water, fuel, and minerals come from, where our nuclear waste and s--- and garbage go to, it is the territory of dreams, somebody’s homeland and somebody’s gold mine.
Rebecca Solnit, As Eve Said to the Serpent: On Landscape, Gender, and Art, 2001
“Post-Landscape: Between Nature and Culture” brought together artists whose work employs landscape to explore the relationships between nature and culture. Through installation, painting, photography, and video, these artists examine such major issues as land use, urbanization, technology, and globalization, as well as their own relationships with nature. Most focus on the Southern California region—including the urban, exurban, desert, and mountain geographies—as the basis for their investigations.
This exhibition looked at the meanings of landscape, nature, and culture, and their interrelationships. Landscape aesthetics generally are considered in terms of genres (beautiful, heroic, pastoral, picturesque, sublime), media (painting, photography), as actual physical places for visual contemplation, or, more recently, as representations of cultural and economic practices. Throughout the history of art, landscape has evoked experiences ranging from the overwhelming and awe-inspiring to the still and contemplative. The origins of landscape genres can be traced to the 18th century and the Enlightenment notion that nature is controllable, and to the 19th-century Romantics’ belief in its transcendental power.
In this exhibition, landscape was used as a framework to investigate further the relationships between nature and culture. The “post” in “Post-Landscape” referred to more than the dualistic relationship between previous landscape art and the current work in this exhibition; “Post-Landscape” also suggested work that rethinks traditional landscape conventions and posits a new kind of relationship with the land. The artists in this exhibition use the landscape to examine critically a range of ideas, including the social and political implications of land use and the control and commodification of nature.
The artists selected offer a wide range of approaches to the issues at hand by exploring either personal or more conceptual responses to the local environment. They provide a framework within which to revisit, reexamine, and reconstruct traditional understandings of nature and landscape and our relationships to them.
“…We forget that battlefields are one kind of landscape and that most landscapes are also territories…on the small scale they involve real estate and sense of place, on the large scale they involve nationalisms, war, and the grounds for ethnic identity…(the landscape is) not just where we picnic but also where we live and die. It is where our food, water, fuel, and minerals come from, where our nuclear waste and shit and garbage go to, it is the territory of dreams, somebody’s homeland and somebody’s gold mine.” Rebecca Solnit, As Eve Said to the Serpent: On Landscape, Gender, and Art
“Post-Landscape” explored the ways in which contemporary artists in Southern California use landscape to mediate the relationships between nature and culture. The exhibition focused on two interrelated constructs: “landscape” and “nature/culture.” Its artists—Kim Abeles, Sandow Birk, Laurie Brown, Elizabeth Bryant, the Center for Land Use Interpretation, Wanda Hammerbeck, Andreas Hessing, Sant Khalsa, Skeet McAuley, Kathryn Miller, and Diana Thater—employed installation, painting, photography, and video to examine issues of land use, urbanization, technology, and globalization. By rethinking their personal relationships with nature, the artists also explore the impact of humankind and society on nature and the land. Most of these artists focus on the local environment of the Southern California region—including the urban, exurban, desert, and mountain geographies—as the basis for their investigations.
While I was mulling over the idea of this exhibition—thinking about the meanings of “landscape,” “nature,” and “culture” and how these concepts intersect and interrelate—I took my dogs on a run in the Arroyo Seco. This trail in Altadena that I have used for years is heavily traveled and easily accessible, but at the same time, beautiful and remote. Feeling at one with the “natural” world around me, I was heading home to work on this essay when my dogs ran off the trail. Seconds later they reappeared on the tail of two squealing fawns. At the end of a frenzied chase, one of the fawns was dead.
Here I was, in the “wild landscape” of the lower San Gabriel Mountains, three miles from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, with my “domesticated” dogs. The blunt reality of the nature/culture issue had suddenly become concrete, personal, and urgent. What is nature? What is culture? Are these two concepts irreconcilable? What is our role in the local landscape? How do we negotiate and come to terms with these issues?
The exhibition, “Post-Landscape: Between Nature and Culture,” sought to explore these ideas and concerns. It looked at the meanings of landscape, nature, and culture, and their interrelationships. These are familiar terms, and we think we understand what they mean. But the concepts they represent are incredibly complex and ideologically inscribed.
Scholars, critics, and art historians have debated these issues for years. Landscape aesthetics generally are considered in terms of genres (beautiful, heroic, pastoral, picturesque, sublime), media (painting, photography), as actual physical places for visual contemplation, or, more recently, as representations of cultural and economic practices. In his important study, Discovering the Vernacular Landscape, historian John Brinckerhoff Jackson devoted an entire chapter to defining the word “landscape.” He starts with a three-hundred-year-old definition written for artists—“a portion of land which the eye can comprehend at a glance”—and goes on to offer a new working definition: “a composition of man-made or man-modified spaces to serve as infrastructure or background for our collective existence.” While remaining partial to the “old-fashioned” definition, Jackson concludes that both have value because they include the “visual experience of our everyday world.”
Throughout the history of art, landscape has evoked experiences ranging from the overwhelming and awe-inspiring to the still and contemplative. The origins of landscape genres can be traced to the 18th century and the Enlightenment notion that nature is controllable, and to the 19th-century Romantics’ belief in its transcendental power. These visions of landscape were more than genres of painting and photography; historically determined, they were a means of cultural expression. Scholar W. J. T. Mitchell succinctly addresses this issue in his essay “Imperial Landscape.” He suggests that elements of landscape and “the historical narratives they generate, are tailor-made for the discourse of imperialism, which conceives itself precisely (and simultaneously) as an expansion of landscape understood as an inevitable, progressive development in history, an expansion of ‘culture’ and ‘civilization’ into a ‘natural’ space in a progress that is itself narrated as ‘natural.’” So, for example, the 19th-century paintings of the western United States by Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran not only brought to Easterners images of a beautiful, wild, untamed nature, but also harnessed, and in essence, subjugated, that nature in the service of the politics of Manifest Destiny.
Scholars likewise continue to examine the nature/culture dichotomy. Philosopher Kate Soper sums up the complexity of this task by looking at two very different, but equally influential, critiques of modernism that bear on the nature/culture issue. In her article Nature/“nature,” Soper contrasts the “ecological” and the “postmodernist” cultural theory approach. The ecological position argues that humans have abused nature and failed to acknowledge our interdependency, while the postmodern argument cites the “cultural policing functions of the appeal to ‘natural’ and its oppressive use to legitimate social and sexual hierarchies and norms of human conduct.” Instead of creating exclusive categories for nature and culture, Soper suggests a broader approach—one that recognizes that what “ecologists loosely refer to as ‘natural’ is indeed a product of culture, both in a physical sense and in the sense that perceptions of its beauties and value are culturally shaped.” She believes that in order to close the gap with nature, we need to be “resensitized to our combined separation from it and dependence upon it.”
Historically, nature has been viewed by patriarchal society as uncontrollable and threatening, as something that exists in opposition to the superiority of the intellect as expressed through culture. The concept of nature has been correlated with the emotional, body-centered attributes commonly associated with the feminine, while the intellect and culture have been linked with male subjectivity and with the rationality and control prized by Western European society. Today the relationships are even more complex. Environmental historian Carolyn Merchant points out that…“as global capitalism spread the market economy throughout the Americas and the colonial empires in the early modern period, and now throughout the rest of the Third World, it has brought nature into a very compromising kind of position. Nature gets transformed from independent subject into object and is used to advance the interests of entrepreneurs and elites at the expense of fulfilling the basic needs for everyone, especially the poor.” Negotiating environmental and land-use concerns in the United States is entirely different from imposing conservation or environmental legislation in Third World countries. The multiple social and political ramifications of the nature/culture issue refuse the simplistic solutions suggested by those who proselytize to “preserve” the land, limit development, designate scenic landscapes, end despoliation, slow global warming, and protect endangered species. While personally embracing these efforts, I know the issue becomes problematic when considering access to and the imbalance of resources available in the United States vs. Third World countries.
In an attempt to look at these issues in a new way, co-curator Colette Dartnall and I used landscape as a framework to investigate further the relationships between nature and culture. The “post” in “Post-Landscape” referred to more than the dualistic relationship between previous landscape art and the current work in this exhibition; “Post-Landscape” also suggested work that rethinks traditional landscape conventions and posits a new kind of relationship with the land. The artists in “Post-Landscape” questioned the role of art and culture in overtly deterministic views of nature and asked how meaning is conveyed through landscape and images of nature.
Beyond rethinking traditional landscape concepts and imagery, the artists in this exhibition also used the landscape to examine critically a range of ideas, including the social and political implications of land use and the control and commodification of nature. While we have sought out artists who live and work in the Southern California region and whose art demonstrates a commitment to exploring issues of landscape, nature, and the environment, we also became particularly interested in artists and projects that were deeply and personally engaged. All of the artists that were presented here explored the landscape in some fashion, all express concern about the land and environment, and many also participate actively in raising awareness about the region’s pressing ecological issues. “Post-Landscape” was a selective collection of images and ideas—not, by any means, the only ones, but those that resonated most powerfully with us.
While much of these artists’ work fits into more than one category, we have grouped them into subsections for the sake of clarity.
Kim Abeles and Sandow Birk challenge the vernacular and medium of the traditional landscape by appropriating and referencing art historical styles and genres.
For over twenty years, Kim Abeles has lived and worked in the Los Angeles area, making art that addresses environmental, social, and political issues. Abeles has described her earlier mixed-media assemblages as “worlds constructed from lost parts: researched, unearthed, and fabricated.” She is represented here by two bodies of work: the Smog Collector paintings and Public Sitings (All Spaces in Los Angeles County). For the Smog Collector images, she made stencils based on 19th-century American landscape paintings that she then placed in the urban environment for thirty days. The medium of the resulting image, which resembles a traditional painted landscape, is smog. Albert Ryder, Ralph Blakelock, and Asher B. Durand, the 19th-century painters Abeles chose as the source of the imagery, refer to pristine landscapes that invoke the romantic American myth of unsullied nature. For Abeles, the images contradict the medium; they “materialize the reality of the air we breathe” and depict the reality of our contemporary landscape. Public Sitings consists of details from Abeles large-scale 1998 map of L. A. County in which she has labeled the public spaces. Modifying the Thomas Guide and other maps of the area, she has hand-colored each “public” area, and attached a colored wire and poker chip, whose color varies according to the nature of the site (hospital, cemetery, school, etc.). In her trademark idiosyncratic exploration of Los Angeles, Abeles tallies and dismantles the mysteries of land use in the county.
Sandow Birk’s work juxtaposes appropriated styles and conventions of art historical genres with a trenchant and ironic look at current social and political issues in California. The paintings on view here stem from the Prisonation: California in the 21st Century series, in which Birk set out to paint all of the prisons in California. Examining how the romantic styles of 19th- and early 20th-century landscape painters fueled the myth of California as a paradise on Earth, Birk uses the vernacular of these works to question the fulfillment of that imagined past. To explore the contradiction between the myth of the California dream and the reality of the state’s having a higher percentage of its population in prison than any other place in the world, the artist appropriates the lush and dramatic landscapes of Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran. He challenges the historically constructed meanings associated with these landscapes by updating them with prisons and other signs of contemporary life. The contrast between the conventional, almost pastoral, beauty of the paintings and the social reality of prisons creates a pointed commentary on contemporary public policies in California.
Laurie Brown, the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI), Wanda Hammerbeck, Andreas Hessing, and Kathyrn Miller look at the broader social implications of land use, questioning how the world’s lands are “apportioned, utilized, and perceived,” as a CLUI pamphlet states. Laurie Brown, CLUI, and Wanda Hammerbeck use a documentary approach, photographing obscure or overlooked landscapes. Andreas Hessing and Kathyrn Miller deal with the environment in a hands-on fashion, working directly with the earth or with plants.
Photographer Laurie Brown documents the transforming landscape of Southern California. Caught between the man-made and the unmade, her bleak images of land bulldozed and leveled for new tract homes testify eloquently to the irreparable changes taking place in the environment of the American West. Curator Robert Sobieszek writes that by “recording those transitions between the unbuilt and the built, Brown has captured a series of alien and foreboding terrains that are stunningly beautiful in their stark austerity and esoteric geometries—arid lands relentlessly scoured, scraped, modeled, and engineered in preparation for domestication…even more unnerving are her photographs of the eventual consequences of those geometries—the planned, repetitive, sterile, and seemingly endless tracts of suburban homes stretching to the horizon’s haze, the expanse of the American dream taken to its end.” As the record of an observant bystander, her work considers how the landscape has been transformed to meet the needs of our consumer society. Depicting the tensions and dualities that comprise our society’s complex relationship to nature, Brown’s photographs capture that contradiction between the desire to keep landscapes pristine and the need to develop and build upon them.
Founded in 1994, The Center for Land Use Interpretation is a nonprofit, artist-run collective that uses both documentary and ironic, slightly tongue-in-cheek approaches to investigating the social landscape of the United States. CLUI describes itself as “a research organization involved in exploring, examining, and understanding land and landscape issues….and the nature and extent of human interaction with the Earth's surface.” Staffed by artists, architects, geologists, scholars, and others, CLUI maintains an archive and database, organizes exhibitions and tours, hosts lectures, and publishes books and a newsletter. Employing conventional research and information-processing methodology as well as nontraditional interpretive tools, CLUI has created an installation for this exhibition based on one of its newest projects—the Desert Research Station in Hinkley, California. Blurring reality and fiction, their interpretive “informational” display matter-of-factly presents obscure information about the desert region in Southern California. The remarkable combination of land-use sites at Hinkley—military test grounds and training camps, the largest open-pit mine in California, cultural sites, prisons, bombing ranges, solar fields—made this project a natural fit for CLUI.
Wanda Hammerbeck likewise employs a topographical approach in her work. Her photographic explorations into the western United States’—particularly Southern California’s—relationship with water as a resource have continued for over twenty years. Since 1975, she has worked with land and water issues to explore notions of site and boundaries, of living on the land, and our role on the Earth. Questioning the prevailing social mythologies that place nature as an object to be viewed, manipulated, commodified, and sold, Hammerbeck sites her work at the juncture of the beauty of nature and the impact of culture. Negotiating environmental and land-use concerns in the United States has always been problematic. It is even more so now, with California’s energy crisis renewing debate about nuclear power, building more power plants, and lowering emissions. Hammerbeck touches on these issues in photographs that ask: What is more important, resources and power, or the environment? Investigating the ways a specific place constructs meaning, she includes text in her work to challenge the conventions of landscape photography and to make the viewer deal with the meaning as well as the look of the land.
Interested in the richness of regional flora and the indigenous Southern California landscape, Andreas Hessing creates site-specific installations that encourage dialogue about the human role in regional ecosystems. He accomplishes this through the reintroduction of native flora upon the existing topography, architecture, debris, and climate of a particular site. As in the Earth art of the 1970s, Hessing challenges notions of traditional landscape art by using and modifying the actual land. But unlike those of the Earth art movement, Hessing’s interests lie in working with actual plants indigenous to the area, attempting to return the land to its original state. For this exhibition, Hessing created in a courtyard outside the Museum’s wall a site-specific installation, or “lesson,” as he calls it, that focused on the endangered habitat of the coastal sage scrub community by using actual plants and other materials found locally.
Like Hessing, Kathryn Miller makes art that moves beyond the confines of the museum and integrates an artistic practice into daily life. Trained as a biologist as well as an artist, Miller would also like to see native plants flourishing again in Southern California. Interested in environmental processes and natural systems, she believes that “we must work with the land rather than just on it.” To address this, her art practice incorporates photography, fieldwork, botany, and whatever else she deems appropriate at the time. For this exhibition, Miller re-created Portable Seed Bombs—compacted egg-shaped balls made of rich soil and seeds native to the Claremont area. The “seed bombs” are designed for landscape re-vegetation purposes and are meant to be thrown into areas that are degraded, physically abused, or in need of vegetation. If the seed bombs “land in the right place, and get enough winter rain, they will produce a beautiful clump of native plants and flowers.” A small scale, unsanctioned intervention in the landscape, the seed bombs link the sanctioned museum space with nature.
Elizabeth Bryant and Diana Thater look at the construction of meaning in nature and the landscape with a more philosophical approach to the control of nature.
Elizabeth Bryant takes kitsch, popular culture images of ideal nature found in calendars, posters, or wallpaper, and cuts silhouettes of Western European or Japanese garden patterns into them. While her work directly addresses the way culture controls and orders nature, other issues resonate here as well. Bryant’s art refers to differing notions of the cultural construction of nature as found in the highly regimented Western European garden plans contrasted with the more organic and asymmetrical Japanese gardens. The often outlandishly idealized images of spectacular natural vistas—snow-covered peaks and verdant green meadows with blooming flowers—show how our culture sees nature as decoration, as a commodity for consumption, and as something to be tamed for our viewing pleasure. Bryant questions the historical traditions that site the modern world in a mechanistic and controlling relationship to nature and the natural world. Art, culture, and nature all became subsumed under a scientific, empirical point of view. By representing the paradigm of domination of the Earth through the controlling oversight of the European or Japanese gardener, Bryant inverts this colonial relationship to the land and opens the discourse of ownership—presenting or preserving scenery does not make it ours.
Video artist Diana Thater’s lush, painterly projections use natural elements and landscapes to “undermine the singularity of time, space, and being.” Hoping to offer an “artistic space where consciousness may be reconstructed,” she confounds the traditional subject/object relationship by moving beyond a single viewpoint to present a multiplicity of perspectives. Thater uses aspects of cultivated and domesticated nature—trained zebras, tame wolves, circus horses—to explore the opposition between the wild and the domesticated, between nature and culture. In The best outside is the inside, Thater considers popular myths about the landscape by inverting how we see a natural site. On two stacked monitors, she presents conflicting imagery filmed at the Los Angeles County Arboretum in Arcadia. One monitor showed a deliberately stagey forest glade filmed during the day with “night for day” screens, and the other a scene filmed during the night with “day for night” screens. This disjunction is compounded by the artist’s inclusion of the actual footage. Fusing nature, culture, and technology, the resulting work uses landscape to question nostalgia and illusion as strategies for taming or controlling the environment.
Sant Khalsa and Skeet McAuley address ideas of the commodification of nature.
Sant Khalsa has been producing and exhibiting artworks for more than two decades, focusing on the sensitive relationship between the natural world, the constructed human environment, and consumerism. In this exhibition, Khalsa presents two sculptural and conceptual installations. Constructed from salvaged wood of varying sizes, Trees and Seedlings addresses both the fragility and the resilience of nature. Installed against the wall like planks of wood stored and displayed for purchase in a lumberyard, Trees and Seedlings represents the cycle of life and the promise of new growth. Each plank contains a small image held between glass of a burned forest that hints at the memory of a forest of trees. Watershed more specifically addresses the commodification of nature, water as a consumer product, and the tendency to see in nature the qualities we desire. The installation consists of a “warehouse” of corrugated boxes holding bottled water, a “point-of-purchase” display of bottles for sale, and product information. Each box and bottle is labeled with product names—creativity, inspiration, change, balance, integrity, harmony, and grace—that have long been linked with our culture’s image of an idealized nature.
Photographer Skeet McAuley makes work that also questions our culture’s images of an illusory “perfect” nature. McAuley is represented here by work from two photographic series—the Golf Course and the Bonsai—that explore the commodification and control of nature. Critic Dave Hickey notes that McAuley’s “glamorous landscape photographs of glamorously landscaped golf courses very closely approximate the flashiest contemporary manifestations of the tradition of rendering Mother Nature as seductive…in content and format, these images portray the earth as a ‘grand horizontal’ laid out in lascivious purity, inviting violation.” McAuley’s large-scale, panoramic photographs of the golf courses of Southern California invert traditional landscape photography by documenting the ways the land has been manipulated to meet conceptions of a perfect nature laid out for the consumption of golfers. His Bonsai work also inverts paradigms of nature. While bonsai are meant to simulate nature, they are subjected to extreme control and manipulation to conform to idealized notions of nature. By blowing up images of bonsai he photographed at the Huntington Gardens in San Marino, he confounds the normal experience we have with bonsai—making gigantic something precious and miniature.
Colette and I have selected these artists because of the range and diversity of their work, and the models for thought and action they offer. By including artists who explore their personal responses to the local environment with others who work on a more conceptual level, we wanted to show the enormous range of approaches that are the basis of this exhibition. These artists provide a framework within which to revisit, reexamine, and reconstruct traditional understandings of nature and the landscape and our relationships to them.
In the Arroyo Seco, when my dogs took off after the fawns, I feared they would attack and kill them. According to the U. S. Forest Service ranger I contacted later, young deer instinctively take refuge in a low area when they can’t run away. The fawns had curled up under water. I got to one in time, but the other drowned in the shallow Arroyo, my dog next to it. Considering myself an “environmentalist,” I was profoundly upset by what had happened, but it forced me to reexamine my role in nature. We do not, and cannot, exist in isolation; our relationship, as “culture” with “nature,” is in a state of constant flux. Likewise, the artists in “Post-Landscape” showed us that the relationships between nature and culture, the local and the global, are constantly shifting. By looking at the many “landscapes” of this region, they reiterated Rebecca Solnit’s urge to view the landscape from multiple subjectivities—as “the territory of dreams, somebody’s homeland and somebody’s gold mine”—and Kate Soper’s push to reexamine and close the gap between nature and culture.
Public Sitings (All Space in Los Angeles County)
Specific Procedure: Public Sitings defines all the public space in Los Angeles County. My definition of public encompasses a psychological approach rather than that of legal ownership. A mall, for example, is privately owned, but most people consider it to be public as they stroll or loiter among fountains, artificial plants, and shops of every specialty. I use a magnifying glass to pinpoint each public siting, paint its color code, and connect it with telephone wire of the same color; the wire in turn is connected to the matching disk color. I work from the determination that regardless of the actual size of a site, a person’s experience is based on a psychological connection and a physical idea of one body, one place. Therefore, all sitings received one disk, like a poker chip, regardless of the actual area of the space.
Aspects of Public: The terms of public remain limited to rules of entry. Parks may be visited during daylight hours, and freeways require a vehicle. People wearing metal spikes cannot walk onto Alhambra Golf Course. Huntington Memorial Hospital is public if you require emergency care, and anyone can visit from 11 to 8, unless a person is in intensive care, in which case only the immediate family is allowed. Norton Simon Museum, like most museums, is public to children under the age of 12, or if you pay—$4 for adults, $2 for seniors 62 years and over, and $2 for students.
Purpose: I took a perfectly good Thomas Guide and other maps of worthy direction, and hand-painted my public considerations. Like scalp implants, I plugged each site with its color-coded wire. Wild hairs sprouting like electricity from the orderly circuit board. I try to begin without predetermination of the results by stitching a massive quilt of Los Angeles County, hung upon the wall, floating onto the floor with piles of coded poker chips or coins tallying the cultural view.
The Smog Collectors
The London Globe printed a new word, “smog,” coined in a speech at the 1905 Public Health Congress. They considered it a public service to describe this phenomenon. Ninety-one years later we possess, yet avoid using, the technology to correct 95% of the pollution legacy.
The Smog Collectors materialize the reality of the air we breathe. They achieve their potency most effectively when the image contradicts their substance. Thus, my process is a private retaliation brought to public attention. They respond to the contradiction between the pure sky and landscape that are part of North America's history (as it is typically presented), and the reality of our polluted skies (throughout the U.S., and not confined to urban areas).
I chose selections from the Arizona State University Art Museum's collection that portray idealized American landscapes. We remember these landscapes, and more important, we involuntarily call upon this type of image when we hear terms such as “nature” or “landscape.” Then, I translated the images into smog collectors, rendering the exact scale and content of the originals, then left these on the roof of my studio and let the particulate matter in the heavy air fall upon them. When the stencil was removed, the images revealed themselves. To quote a stranger, they are “footprints of the sky.” Since the worst in our air can't be seen, Smog Collectors are both literal and metaphoric depictions of the current conditions of our life source. They are reminders of our industrial decisions: the road we took that seemed so modern.
Raised on the beaches of Orange County and currently living and working in Los Angeles, Sandow Birk is a product of California culture. Well traveled and a graduate of the Otis/Parsons Art Institute, Birk in his work has dealt with Los Angeles in its entirety. With an emphasis on social issues, frequent themes of his past work have included daily life in L.A.'s barrios, inner city violence, graffiti, various political issues, surfing, and skateboarding.
From its location at the edge of the continent, through the Gold Rush to the screens of Hollywood, California has long symbolized an American Eden. In the late 19th century, artist-explorers such as Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, and others depicted the California landscape in a variety of manners. Combining Romantic concepts of the sublime with newer ideas concerning the picturesque, these artists helped create the myth of an Arcadian California even as they painted it. At the dawn of the 21st century, this American view of the West begs to be updated. California currently has a higher percentage of its population in prison than any other place in the world, with more than a quarter million prisoners housed in more than 40 state and federal prisons. As more and more individuals are incarcerated, California is fast becoming a landscape of imprisonment, confinement, and despair.
Prisonation examines how the images of early landscape artists fueled the myth of California as a promised American paradise. Yet where once the state was seen as a wild, untamed, God-given destination of hope and possibility, it is time that its romantic image accommodates the realities of the society that has resulted from its past aspirations.
Growing up in Los Angeles, my brother and I always looked forward to the weekends, a time when our grandfather would often take us hiking and exploring in the nearby mountains and deserts. Many years later I am still drawn to the outdoors, where I now find myself pointing my camera lens toward the changing landscape close to my home near the Southern California coast, a geography where the boundary line between built and un-built is constantly being redrawn. Here on the edge of the West, on the very land that was once considered to be our wilderness frontier, the expanding suburbs continue to create new footprints on our maps and new horizons in our view. The use of a panoramic camera emphasizes the line of the horizon and the expanse of the view, often situating us as if from a great distance, at the planet’s edge. The camera captures the reality of a specific time and place, but the resulting photograph can at the same time allude to larger realities. The exposed layers of earth often speak of earlier cultures as studied in archeology or even of geologic time, a time before the human presence. These many ordered spaces reflect my continued interest in considering the reality of my own cultural time and place as well as the reality of its connections to our larger sense of history and the possibilities of both the mythic and the timeless.
My work utilizes historic garden plans cut into contemporary scenic photographic posters and murals to examine our culturally mediated relationship to nature and how it might reflect and influence our sense of time and place.
The familiar photographic imagery depicts archetypal views of the landscape derived from classical painting, while the ground plans are from historic European and Asian gardens selected for their specific references to time and place and their obsessive ordering of the natural terrain. A mediation between culture and nature is manifested in the construction of these images and sites whose symbolic significance reflects a collective desire to both control and romanticize nature. The artwork forms a hybrid in which perceptions of nature overlap visually, culturally, and historically.
On a formal level these pieces complicate the illusion of depth in the scenic image by interrupting it with the incised diagram of the garden. The cut prints are hung to allow the cut-out garden plan to cast a shadow on the wall, an element that acts as an index of the present and serves to extend the inherent interplay of time and place in the work. Several mural works utilize large scale and reconfigure the cut-out pieces into a mobile construction, activated by the viewer’s motion to generate constantly changing views through and between the cut-out shapes of the scenic mural and mobile. Like the cast shadows, these fluctuating views accentuate the viewer’s present position in the gallery while simultaneously referring to the illusion of space in the generic scenic image and the map of a tea garden path in Kyoto.
The Center for Land Use Interpretation
The Center for Land Use Interpretation is a nonprofit research organization interested in understanding the nature and extent of human interaction with the Earth's surface. The Center embraces a multidisciplinary approach to fulfilling the stated mission, employing conventional research and information-processing methodology as well as nontraditional interpretive tools.
The Center's Land Use Database is a resource of information on unusual and exemplary land-use sites across North America. From this collection of files, maps, photographs, and continuous research come Center projects such as guidebooks and other publications, exhibitions, public tours, and thematic activities and events related to understanding and interpreting the landscapes that surround us.
The Land Use Museum Complex is a network of exhibit sites across the United States. Facilities currently include an exhibit hall, studio, and residence program at Wendover, Utah, as well as displays in remote locations.
The Center maintains a searchable database on the World Wide Web, containing information on more than one thousand interesting physical locations, sorted by the Center's land-use classification system (mining sites, military sites, industrial sites, radioactive sites, transportation sites, water sites, waste sites, cultural sites, and research and development sites). The Center's library, photographic archive, and files are available to individual researchers by appointment.
The Center also publishes a quarterly newsletter, The Lay of the Land, which is distributed to interested individuals, academics, educators, artists, and journalists. Exhibits and lectures are held continuously throughout the year at the Center's exhibit hall in Los Angeles, and at other museums and galleries.
The Center is neither an environmental group nor an industry-affiliated organization. Rather, the work of the Center integrates the many approaches to land use, the many perspectives of the landscape, into a single vision that illustrates the common ground in “land-use” debates. At the very least, the Center attempts to emphasize the multiplicity of points of view regarding the utilization of terrestrial and geographic resources.
The work is an investigation of how a landscape photograph makes meaning and beyond that, how the land itself makes meaning. Utilizing landscape photographs and text to explore the basic phenomenology of being on the land and under the sky—those basic aspects of land that inform us about ourselves, about our relationship with the land and the civilization we build out of that relationship.
For a long time I have sensed that I live in a time of profoundly deep ignorance about our connections to the Earth as we become increasingly more dependent on information from electronic sources rather than natural sources. It is a time when vital knowledge humans have always possessed from their experience with the land seems beyond reach. Many of us have forgotten to reach because we do not even know where or for what it is we should reach.
As soon as I leave the others and begin to make photographs, I am conscious of being influenced no longer. I am no longer disconnected and the world comes to exist for me again, not as some foreign, distant, other to be looked at, but as a totality in which I am able to become immersed, whose parts are an extension of myself. They are continuous with me and I with them. Here, I learn things I have forgotten and I learn things I never knew. They are simple truths and I sense they are very important as I realize that what we do to the land we do to ourselves, for we are inextricably bound with the land in a totality.
The photographs serve as connections, as renewal points to help me reaffirm my affection for these places and for life and my commitment to caring about us, about who we are and who we will become.
My work has its roots deep in childhood interests and the southern California landscape; from countless hours spent exploring hills, fields, and orchards and from childhood worlds created of toys, utilitarian objects, and suburban architecture.
Broadly, I am looking at land use. Specifically, I am interested in the philosophical, political, and social implications of our indigenous flora.
Transect is intended to be an exploration of the tension between our burgeoning human population and the pressures it puts on wild habitat—specifically the loss of coastal sage scrub/chapparal habitat in southern California. These habitat types, like their counterparts in other Mediterranean climates around the world, are the primary areas for development. The continued loss of these wild areas is simply a continuation of the process of colonization. When people move into new areas they intentionally and unintentionally bring the plants, animals, and ideas with which they are familiar.
The plants we see everyday in private yards and public spaces are almost exclusively horticultural imports—exotics. Many of them, lawns in particular, require enormous amounts of imported chemicals, soils, water, and energy to survive in our climate. These practices create dangerous imbalances in knowledge, ecosystems, and pocketbooks. I once found these gardens “normal,” as they evoked feelings of comfort and security. But upon reflection I realized these feelings were also imported. Plants are the center of the web of life. When we pull up plants, dynamite trees, or bulldoze the earth we are destroying homes, food, and cultures. When plants lose their lives, pollinators and dispersers perish, soil chemistry changes, and millions of years of evolution ceases in that area. Specific types of flora and fauna evolve and live in certain areas for concrete reasons.
People are one important part of the universe but not the most important. Like everything else we need to live in harmony with the rest of our peers.
I produce artworks to express my ideas and concern about our environment—the place where humanity and nature intersect. My installations and sculptural works are intended to create a contemplative space where the audience can sense the subtle and profound connections between themselves and the natural world. Personal experiences and revelations initiate my research into complex environmental and societal issues including air pollution, water politics, deforestation, land use, and global warming. I also seek related ideas from mythology, psychology, philosophy, and eco-feminism. My goal is the distillation of these ideas, relevant information, and my experience into artworks that may engage the audience on physical, intellectual, and emotional levels, in hopes of raising consciousness and effecting change.
Water and air—the essential life elements required for sustaining life—have been consistent subjects in my work for more than two decades. I have often focused on forests as the source of the “sacred breath” and the “sacred spring.” The two works included in this exhibition continue my investigation into these ideas and the myriad meanings and metaphors present in nature.
Trees and Seedlings: Seedlings are small, one-of-a-kind sculptural objects that address both the fragility and resilience of nature. They represent the cycle of life (birth, life, death, and rebirth) and the promise of new growth. Trees are constructed like Seedlings but are larger in scale. They are installed leaning against a wall like planks of wood are stored and displayed for purchase in a lumberyard. These works are intended to bring attention to the source of the wood and the memory of the forest. All the pieces are constructed from vertical poplar wood planks varying in height and width, and high-contrast gelatin-silver transparencies of a burned forest held between glass.
Watershed is a conceptual work solely constructed with everyday materials that involves the most basic and necessary of life experiences—the drinking of water. The installation is visually minimal while offering complex layers of meaning for the audience to consider through their active participation in the art experience. A bottled-water company has been created, whose product (by playing off the notion that we consume to feel better about ourselves) “gives the consumer what they physically require and psychologically desire.” The artwork addresses the commodification of nature, water as consumer product, and human desire—a never-ending thirst. Watershed is intended to use what is familiar to bring about a turning point in the course of one’s own experience and understanding of our inherent relationship with water and the natural world. The installation includes a warehouse of corrugated boxes (manufactured from trees) holding bottled water, stacked to form a shed-like structure—a watershed; point-of-purchase displays of bottled water offered for sale and consumption; and product information including a mission statement, market research, and a listing of the ideas that went into the development of the product (and installation). Each bottle of drinkable spring water and box is labeled with the product names (creativity, inspiration, change, balance, integrity, harmony, and grace) representing attributes found in the natural world as well as desirable human qualities.
My work is an ongoing study of the relationship between today’s consumer-driven cultures and the natural environment. I continuously shift strategies of making work between “real-life” documents on location and “reel-life” records of studio sets. The slippage of culture and environment cannot be effectively addressed from a monocular point of view. Neither can any meaningful conversation between artwork and audience.
In 1990, for a photographic assignment, golf architect Tom Fazio took me around his Champion Hills Golf Club while it was under construction in the mountains of North Carolina. He explained how he had moved a stream from one side of a fairway to the other as a way to make the course more "playable,” while a mountain had been “taken out” so that the new and improved view could include the mountains behind. The product of massive land re-formation became, in the name of sport, an aesthetic consumption of the great outdoors. This experience led to my ongoing interest in the golf course as a fabricated and perfected environment. The resulting artworks are larger-than-life panoramic landscapes inspired by painters such as Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Church. With the aesthetic devices of color, scale, and light, these artists fabricated a landscape of mythical stature. At the same time, the paintings conveyed a rhetorical expression of a national belief in Manifest Destiny. This may not be far from how contemporary golf architects construct and view their work. Golf architects attempt to create a seamless harmony between the golf course and the surrounding environment.
More recently, I have been photographing bonsai trees from the collection at the Huntington Gardens in San Marino, California. The results are monumental, inspirational, and yet another visual insight into a culture’s needs to perfect or re-create nature. The bonsai is an illusion of a perfect nature that represents the deeper spiritual meaning of life. The object of bonsai is to simulate nature. This simulated natural beauty is intended to remind us of something other than the plant itself: a change in seasons, mountains, valleys, rivers, lakes, storms, wind, rain, snow, or frost. The philosophy of bonsai emphasizes a profound significance of leaving things out, or “less is more.” Scale is commonly an important factor in any experience with the natural environment, and the bonsai miniaturizes this experience. The scale of these works gives several clues as to how perfection is achieved. Copper wires are coiled around branches to reshape their natural tendencies into illusions of the effects of age, wind, or both. Bark is stripped, bleached, and sanded to simulate many years of weathering. The results are simple and profound, seductive and tragic.
Born and raised on the coast of Brazil, Kathryn Miller was greatly influenced by the language, vegetation, music, culture and art of that country. She completed her undergraduate and graduate studies in the United States, receiving a B.S. and M.A. in biology and a Master’s of Fine Art in sculpture.
With her background in sculpture, photography, biology, botany, and ecology, her work is based on an interest in the natural environment and the desire to look more closely at life-supporting systems. In recent projects she has used various methods to intervene with degraded and compromised areas of the landscape in order to restore local wildlife and more self-sustaining plant systems. Crossing the boundaries of art, her projects often involve collaborations with people from other disciplines. She is very interested in the role of artist as social participant and is always looking for ways to strengthen the link between nature and culture.
The best animals are the flat animals—the best space is the deep space is a project that reaches, through the imagery, shooting style, and choice of media, editing, and, finally, installation, into the gap that exists between the illusionary depth of the image and the real surface of the screen. All of the things that make up the work—those who are depicted (objects); how they relate to their space (the field); how the image of them relates to our space (real space); and those who watch (subjects)—are made equivalent.
The best animals are the flat animals—the best space is the deep space is a collection of eight works for installation that comprise 27 different parts. Each work uses a different grouping and configuration from among the pieces. All eight works were shot both in film and video and are made for projection and monitors. The work is intended to be arranged and rearranged out of its many separate parts in different spaces in different cities simultaneously.
This exhibition included The best outside is the inside, one of eight parts of The best animals are the flat animals—the best space is the deep space. It is a separate tableau shot at the Los Angeles County Arboretum. The work was made in two parts: During the day the scene was shot with filters as “day for night,” and then it was shot again at night with bright lights as “night for day.” Here there is no single object at which we are asked to direct our gaze; the empty space itself—the landscape—is the object. The viewer watches the crew, who in turn watch the well-lit space. If the shot were framed more tightly, we would mistake the daytime forest for night, but it is so widely framed that we see the sunlit sky. In the night shot, if the camera were to zoom in, it would appear to be broad daylight for a space of five or six feet, but, again, too much of the forest is in the shot; the dark tops of the trees are visible, and the image falls off into complete darkness at the edges of the frame. Two shots were made simultaneously in 35mm film and in video: The film records the forest alone, and the video records the crew watching the film being shot. The two are edited separately and are played on separate monitors. In this piece a confusion about time, as opposed to space, is the objective. The forest is a background, not for a living being, but for the most ephemeral of things: visible time.